According to the headlines, every candidate left standing has offered for public scrutiny his or her most private financial documents. Well, every candidate except one: that wily, unaccountable Donald Trump. Other presidential contenders have intimated that this must mean that he, and he alone, has something to hide.
Unfortunately, this narrative is false. Not the Trump-is-probably-hiding-stuff part, but the nobody-else-is-hiding-stuff bit.
There is in fact just one candidate still in the race who has released his or her tax returns. It is — perhaps somewhat improbably — Clinton.
So what exactly have all the other candidates done to earn themselves so much praise for financial forthrightness?
Breaking with decades of presidential vetting tradition, they have released only summary information about their tax liabilities, as contained on the first two pages of the federal form known as a 1040. This is not a full “tax return,” though. Indeed, if this were all they sent to the Internal Revenue Service, the “return” would be rejected.
“[The IRS] wouldn’t accept an incomplete return, and neither should reporters — or voters,” says Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts and an adjunct professor at the Northwestern University School of Law.
I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the days when “long-form” document truthers ruled the airwaves, but I’ve been disturbed by how accepting both the media and the public have been of these abbreviated tax documents — and by the precedent they set.
The materials that most of the candidates have released, after all, are missing all the important information that politicians’ tax returns are supposed to illuminate.
That includes details about where their income and their spouse’s income derive from, and thus what conflicts of interest they might have; how much they give to charity, and which charities; what kinds of assets they have invested in; and whether they’re taking aggressive tax positions or even playing fast and loose with the law, among other meaningful public disclosures about their financial incentives.
To give you a sense of how consequential such disclosures have been in the not-so-distant past, note that Cruz released his full, “long-form” tax returns when he was running for Senate in 2012. Those returns revealed that he gave less than 1 percent of his income to charity between 2006 and 2010. That’s an order of magnitude less than the tithing that many evangelical Christian voters who make up his base believe the Bible demands.
Cruz’s rivals seized on this revelation.
“I just think it’s hard to say God is first in your life if he’s last in your budget,” Mike Huckabee, then still vying for the same devout constituents as Cruz in the Republican presidential primary, said in January. “If I can’t trust God with a dime out of each dollar that I earn, then I’m not sure how I can tell him that I trust him with my whole life.”
Cruz responded to such criticisms by saying that he regretted his failure to tithe, that this failure occurred a whopping “10 years ago,” and that in “this area, as in many areas of my life, I am working to do a better job walking in my faith.”
He also learned a critical lesson: When you campaign on your faith and accountability, people might hold you accountable for certain financial manifestations of that faith. No wonder, then, that when he later released more recent years of tax data, he stripped out information that would allow curious voters to examine whether he’d in fact done a better job walking in his faith since 2012, at least according to the tithing goals he had apparently set for himself.
Cruz’s attempt to pass off his recent releases as “tax returns” is especially galling when you consider that tax return simplification is a key plank of his campaign. The revolutionarily simple “size of a postcard” tax return he promises voters looks less revolutionarily simple when you realize it’s almost identical to the ultra-short form he’s pretending tax returns already take. His reform proposal and his pretense of disclosure both ignore the fact that the complicated part of filling out your taxes isn’t the cover page but the reams of pages behind it that define and measure income.
Trump’s unwillingness to release any documentation of his own recent tax liabilities is also unforgivable. (He says he’s being subjected to religiously motivated audit harassment, which, even if true, would not prevent him from disclosing any tax returns.) But it’s pretty hard for the pots to call the kettle black on this one.